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More than 150 years and counting — Documentary on the Holy Family Sisters in SA

Many religious congregations of women have worked tirelessly behind the scenes in South Africa in health, education and pastoral care. Seldom have they been in the limelight. The Holy Family Sisters of Bordeaux are one such congregation. Ricardo da Silva SJ takes a look at the Jesuit Institute South Africa's latest film production – a documentary which tells their story.

The Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux first arrived in South Africa in 1864 and have worked tirelessly in service of South Africans for more than 150 years since then.

The latest project from the Jesuit Institute (JI) media team chronicles some of the history of these remarkable women who, as one of the sisters on the film says, have “laughed many laughs with the people and cried many tears with the people” whom they have so joyously and selflessly served and in whose lives they have shared.

The documentary is directed by Katleho Khang, a Religious sister of the Sisters of the Holy names of Jesus and Mary and professional filmmaker from Lesotho, who was also responsible for editing the film alongside Francis Tuson. Francis, a trained sound engineer and musician, expertly composed the original score, mastered and edited the sound for the documentary.

Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux in South Africa: live communion, celebrate family is the second documentary project from the Jesuit-led organisation based in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Their first project documents the ministry and services offered to the homeless people of the inner city of Johannesburg based at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Braamfontein and is entitled Homelessness on the streets of Jozi. 

The Holy Family sisters have ministered to a cross section of the peoples of our society. From caring for sailors coming to South Africa from afar to the education of the most underprivileged children in very poor black communities.

Perhaps unknown to many, the sisters were especially pioneering in healthcare and education. They started hospitals, schools and set up other social and pastoral centres wherever they went.

The Charlotte Maxeke Hospital and the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, as they are now known, were both started by the sisters’ congregation and are still among the most important medical research and practice centres in the country, and are globally recognised .

In the realm of education they were prolific by establishing educational centres, getting girls into schools and ensuring that they were offered opportunities that left them as educated as their male counterparts. They started St Mary’s School in Pietermaritzburg, for many years the oldest school in the city, as well as the first boarding school in Bloemfontein, Greenhill Convent.

Their work went well beyond South African borders, stretching into Namibia, Botswana, Rwanda and Uganda.

Today, their numbers are greatly diminished and the congregation seems to think it may be seeing an end to its presence in South Africa as the sisters age and those considering Religious Life decrease.

Nonetheless, the work now done by such a small number of sisters is carried on in the charism of their lay associates and many others who are inspired by the spirituality of the sisters. These ensure that they are able to sustain their care and concern for the most disenfranchised in the societies where they maintain an active presence.

They really are an inspiring light in the midst of much gloom in our Church and it will lift your spirits to take a few minutes and watch this documentary film detailing their long and glorious history.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Ricardo da Silva SJ
Ricardo is a member of the South African region of the Jesuits and an ordained deacon of the Roman Catholic Church. In 2020, he received a master's degree in journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, New York, where he was an African Pulitzer Fellow and reported on religion, mental health, housing and other social injustices. Before moving to the U.S.A., Ricardo served as acting editor of and was on the team at Jesuit Institute South Africa. His preparation for ministry as a Jesuit has taken him to study theology in Brazil, philosophy in the U.K and brief working stints in Zimbabwe and Spain. As a Jesuit, he has ministered to refugees, migrants, people experiencing street homelessness, young adults, seminarians, the elderly, and high school and university students, staff and faculty. Before entering religious life in 2007, Ricardo worked in marketing, communications, and brand management before joining the Jesuits in 2007. Ricardo holds dual citizenship, having emigrated from Portugal to South Africa at the age of six with his mother.

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